By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Esteban Ocon says Force India need have no concerns about any repeat of last year’s clashes between him and Mexican team mate Sergio Perez when the Formula One season starts in Australia next week.
The Silverstone-based outfit had to rein in the drivers last year after the rivalry ran out of hand, with a podium chance in Azerbaijan slipping through their fingers when the cars collided.
There were sparks at Spa, too, with Frenchman Ocon accusing Perez of twice trying to kill him by squeezing his car towards the wall before they again collided.
“We went through a period which was quite tough, we were fighting for a 10th, for 100ths in practice and on tracks,” Ocon told Reuters during testing in Spain for the season that kicks off on March 25.
“There was a time when we got too close but that’s over now… I think there should be no worries that this will continue. I don’t want it to happen.”
The two — equally determined and well-matched on the track with plenty of ambition — will still form one of the more competitive pairings in the sport and there is always the possibility for friction.
Asked this month whether the fourth-ranked team would be reminding them of their responsibilities this season, chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer did not hesitate:
“Yes. Daily, if not hourly,” he replied.
“We’re going to start off the season as we left it last year,” continued the American. “The last few races they were allowed to compete against each other.
“One of the phases of team building is the conflict stage. And then when you get past the conflict stage, you work better together. I think that’s the stage they’re at now.”
CHANGE OF ATTITUDE
Ocon said he and 28-year-old Perez, now the only Latin American driver on the starting grid after Brazilian Felipe Massa’s retirement, actually got on well enough.
“We would probably never go on holidays together, but we have no problem,” declared the Frenchman, who is of Spanish extraction.
“There is a great atmosphere in the team, everyone’s working closely and I work closely with him as well so there are no issues.”
Perez said last year that Ocon needed to change his attitude and he felt that had happened.
“Esteban is one of the best drivers out there in terms of his capacity. What he did last year with not a lot of experience was quite impressive,” the Mexican told Reuters.
“Everyone realized and spoke very highly about him, and that’s good.
“I could see that towards the end of the year he’s a different person, the way he approached things. I hope that just keeps getting better on him.”
Ocon has plenty at stake this year, as a Mercedes-backed driver placed with customer team Force India to get experience while the world champions decide their next move.
If he continues to shine, and Valtteri Bottas fails to convince as four times world champion Lewis Hamilton’s team mate, then Ocon could be next in line for one of the most coveted seats.
“My career is managed by Mercedes so it would be the logical way to go at some point in Mercedes but I fully trust my management side, they will decide on my future,” he said, diplomatically.
There is also a home grand prix to look forward to at Le Castellet — the southern circuit where he took his first single-seater podium and victory in Formula Renault 2.0 in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Ocon said a new fitness regime, involving tramping through deep snowdrifts in the Pyrenees mountains during European winter training, had also paid off.
“Basically what I saw from last year was that we also could improve on my training regime. We did it now and I feel like I’m more complete as an athlete,” he said.
“I’m more of an athlete than I was last year.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)